When I moved to Brussels, my foreignness was obvious. I looked daunted and lost in such a big and completely unknown city. Moreover, I couldn’t understand the language. And if you are about to say something like “How come you didn’t understand it? Italian (my mother tongue) and French (one of Belgium’s official languages) are sister languages!” you can stop it already.
For close the two languages may seem, trust me: you DON’T GET A THING when native speakers open their mouth! Okay, you might catch something when they talk to you at a slower pace. Perhaps you are even able to grasp the main idea of a text. But you are definitely cut off when natives address each other in a conversation or simply speak at a normal speed behind the counter.
However, being (un)able to communicate is not the only challenge you face when moving abroad. You need to familiarise yourself with new spaces and distances, get accustomed to different habits, and sadly come to terms with your homesickness. Not to mention the toll it takes to get to know people and make new friends.
The good news is that humans are different: each of us adapts to changes in his own way. That’s why my experience as an expat may be utterly different from yours or your cousin-in-law’s. That said, there are some recurring patterns when it comes to expats and expat behaviour.
What follows is a non-comprehensive – and purposefully humorous – list of “expat types” I was able to identify during my almost 7 years abroad.
1. The reluctant mover
No matter where he does come from, nowhere is as amazing as his homeland. The food tastes better there; people are cooler, landscapes enchanting. On the contrary, life in the host country is so miserable he can barely stand it. And he doesn’t miss a chance to let you know.
So why did you move in the first place? Well, you know…
And then he starts listing the most negative aspects of his life back home. The skyrocketing unemployment; how the government wasn’t doing any good; the lack of prospects… Until he admittedly says he didn’t have so many alternatives after all.
The fact that the hideous host country is providing him with a job, a roof over his head, and a decent life doesn’t matter. He just wants to complain.
2. The commuter
There is no clear evidence that he actually moved abroad. In fact, he is often back in town. And when he is not, chances are he is on his way.
He made sure to move to a bordering country or somewhere not far from home. He travels over the weekend to spend his Saturday evening with his lifelong mates and enjoy a Sunday brunch with his family. Bank holidays and long weekends are an additional excuse for a trip home. Summer and Christmas breaks have only one destination.
He holds a bunch of “frequent traveller” cards, and spends most of his salary in flight and train tickets. He doesn’t know much about his host country. He doesn’t even bother to explore the surroundings of his rented condo.
He doesn’t regret his previous life, nor disdain his new one. He thinks all this mess may just be temporary. Or maybe not, he will see. Meanwhile, he has found a balance and simply enjoys the benefits of both lifestyles.
3. The xenomaniac
Opposite to his evil twin at n. 1, “abroad is better” for him. Life is good only beyond his native country borders.
He grew up reading, watching, or listening to whatever came from or referred to “the elsewhere.” He had only one objective in mind: venture abroad as soon as possible. Alternatively, he happened to travel early on and nurture his xenomania (the love of foreign things) since childhood. Either way, he eventually made it abroad and has lived happily ever after. Of course, he doesn’t miss a chance to let you know.
Funnily enough, however, he never tells you what exactly his much-praised host country is good for. Wherever it is “the abroad” he refers to, it’s not great per se. It’s just greater than his homeland. Quality of life? Civil rights? Pension system? Education, working culture, environmental policies…? Come on, man! It’s soooo much better here. You cannot even compare the two…
4. The integrated
He is inherently open-minded, easygoing, and friendly. He does want to get involved in new cultures and he is happy to blend in, be it for a while or a lifetime. Or he just got married to a local.
Whatever the reason, he fits in. He has a network of native contacts and friends. He speaks the local language(s) and understands dirty jokes with cuss words. He assimilated the country’s culture and got used to local habits. He may – or actually did – even apply for citizenship.
He keeps in touch with family and friends in his native country, and goes back every now and then. He misses it at times, but he wouldn’t return. “Home” is where he lives right now, and he couldn’t imagine otherwise.
5. The “I’ll be back”
Another evil twin. Opposite to his integrated brother, he longs to return. He didn’t want to relocate in the first place, but his life conditions left him with very few choices. He aims at establishing himself, scrape together some money, and go back home.
He hopes to do it ASAP, but he could agree on moving back after retirement if it is impossible right away. He is not particularly involved in his host country’s traditions, politics, and people. He simply doesn’t care.
He maintains close relations with his homeland. He follows the news, supports his lifelong sports team, and keeps up with family events. He can’t help but instructing people about his return. He repeats it like a mantra: “I’ll be back one day.” Hopefully enough, he will eventually make it.
6. The countryman
Relocating wasn’t much of a big deal for him. He believes that “your soul is your home.” Therefore, you can always find yourself irrespective of where you are in the world. Or something like that.
That’s why he leads the very same life wherever he lands up. Upon arrival, he spends some time to set up the same “life framework” he had back home. He then picks up from where he left off and gets on with the same schemes and routines as before.
His move is often conditional to someone else’s. Once a relative or a friend has established himself in a new country, he packs his things up and joins them. He then becomes part of the new community of nationals overseas.
If that’s not the case and he relocates on his own, he seeks out other fellow countrymen. He keeps speaking his native language and doesn’t mix with the locals or any other expat unless he is forced to. He follows what goes on in his native country from afar. He secretly dreams about coming back one day.
7. The bubbler
I think the term is strictly intertwined with Brussels’ expat community. Nevertheless, it may explain a recent trend in cities with a growing international presence. The “Brussels bubble” refers to Brussels expats who typically work in the EU institutions, but live apart from Belgian residents.
The bubbler works and lives in a place he is not really interested in. Whatever the neighbourhood, city, or country, it’s just the background of his days. He may complain about traffic jams and dirty public spaces, but that doesn’t have any impact on his life. He has nothing against locals or their customs; he simply doesn’t care.
He carries on with his existence in a parallel-like universe. He attends exclusive events in fancy locations, hangs out with other international folks, and speaks primarily English. Even visa requirements and national tax rules may not apply to him, as he falls under international law or special regimes.
8. The returned
Either he did want to come back or was forced by adverse circumstances, he is not happy with that. The place he has returned to is not the place he remembered. Or worse, it’s exactly the same. He once and for all realises why he left in the first place. He now regrets coming back.
If the ties with his former host country are robust enough, he ships himself and his stuff back for good. He turns away from his broken dreams and never looks back. Otherwise, he reluctantly readjusts to his old life. He will never cease to dream about moving again though.
He is finally back. Either he has been away for 4 months or 40 years, he feels like nothing has changed. At least for him. Before his arrival, he calls up to every person he knows. He pleads with everyone to spread the word about his return. Once back, he celebrates at length with family, friends, acquaintances, and whoever wants to join.
He finally settles in a new routine, and enjoys every single aspect of it. Even chores – once annoying when abroad – are welcome, because they occur in “his place.” He doesn’t care whether what he knew before leaving has changed. He will adapt. He is just happy to be back.
Over to you now! What type of expat are you? Maybe a mix of two or more? And which one did you have a chance to meet?